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Is this the summer when you will read James Joyce’s Ulysses? : Information Center

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June 6, 2022


A copy of the first edition of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. The work, initially serialized, was influential long before it was published as a novel in 1922, according to University of Rochester English professor James Longenbach. (Photo Getty Images / Phil Noble – WPA Pool)


Here are a few things to know about the literary masterpiece that has elated and bewildered its readers for 100 years.

In the century since its publication, James Joyce’s book Ulysses has been described as beautiful, overrated, experimental, pornographic, boring, and awesome.

“It’s also a great leveler,” says James Longenbach, Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester. He has taught books since the late 1980s in various undergraduate and graduate courses on literary modernism.

“I studied with A. Walton Litz, a great scholar of Joyce, and realized that if I did not teach UlyssesI was wasting that experience,” he says.

Based on ideas from Longenbach’s reading, teaching and writing years of Ulysseswe’ve highlighted some things you might not know about the 700+ page novel that consistently ranks among the most important and difficult works of English fiction.

What is Ulysses by James Joyce about? “Two things at once,” says Longenbach, one of which is language itself.

Published in 1922, the story traces a single day, June 16, 1904, in the lives of several characters in Dublin, Ireland. The main protagonists include “everybody” Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus (a young man – Joyce’s literary alter ego – grappling with the death of his mother), and Leopold’s wife, Molly.

Most of the novel follows Bloom as he drives through town, endures an anti-Semitic tirade, crosses paths with Stephen, and ends his day in bed alongside Molly, whose famous monologue concludes the novel.

But a plot summary doesn’t do the job justice. Here is how Longenbach, in a 2013 article for The Yale Reviewsummed up Joyce’s most famous work:

Ulysses is two things at once. On the one hand, it’s a realistic novel, a relentless exploration of the inner and outer lives of three major characters and a host of minor characters. On the other hand, it is an elaborate verbal confection, an intricately designed work of art that draws attention to its linguistic surface, sometimes to the detriment of the very illusion of inner life it also creates.

There is no definitive edition of Joyce Ulysses. But there’s a reason the “Gabler Edition” can stand out from most.

Ulysses, which was originally serialized in the United States in The little magazine“had no publisher, no publisher that existed before the time of its publication, no typesetter who understood English”, writes Longenbach in The Yale Review.

The first edition was published in its entirety in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, an American-born champion of Joyce and her work, as part of her Paris bookstore business Shakespeare and Company. Since then, more than a dozen versions have been released, many of which claim to correct errors and unintended mistakes.

For his part, Longenbach has the students read the version edited by Hans Walter Gabler and published in 1984, which attempts to produce an accurate and complete version of the book. It’s no easy task, however, given that Joyce wrote almost a third of the work on the printed proofs, notes Longenbach.

In the pre-Gabler editions, for example, Stephen Dedalus receives a telegram which reads: “Dying mother, come home, father”, correcting the “nother” of the original manuscript to “mother”, assuming a fault of hitting. “The Gabler edition, however, says other, as Joyce originally did, leaving readers to ponder this “mistake,” says Longenbach. “Now, are there any errors in Gabler? Yes, but less.

Triptych of book covers for Ulysses by James Joyce.

Three examples of book covers for James Joyce Ulysses.

The book’s chapters, which Joyce called “episodes,” are based on The Odyssey by Homer – but using the epic poem to interpret the work is a mistake.

Odysseus is the Latinized version of the Greek name Ulysses, and the book’s eighteen episodes are loosely based on Homer’s epic poem. Odyssey. So that means Leopold Bloom is Odysseus, Stephen Dedalus is Telemachus, and Molly Bloom is Penelope, right?

Longenbach cautions readers against using the Homeric poem as the Rosetta Stone to decipher meaning. “In the critical history of Ulyssesattempts to find a key often only succeeded in turning Ulysses in a lock,” he says.

Instead, Longenbach invites readers to revel in the book’s panoply of literary and linguistic styles. These include the journalistic headlines interrupting the episode “Aeolus”; the flowery and romantic language of “Nausicaa”; the stage directions in “Circé”; and Molly Bloom’s famous, mostly unpunctuated final soliloquy. Even the realism that characterizes the first episodes is a consciously contrived artifice, as in any novel, but this reality is underscored by the explosion of styles that follows.

Although he is the target of anti-Semitism, the protagonist Leopold Bloom is not really Jewish.

In the episode “Cyclops”, Bloom is the target of an anti-Semitic tirade from a cartoonish Irishman called “the Citizen”. To this onslaught, Bloom responds: “Your God was Jewish. Christ was a Jew like me. He later admits that he was only pretending to be Jewish: “So without deviating in the least from the facts, I told him that his God, I mean Christ, was Jewish too and his whole family like me, although in reality I am not.”

It is important to remember that Ulysses begins to be truly influential long before its publication in 1922.”

In other words, Bloom isn’t really Jewish—he doesn’t consider himself Jewish either, despite his father being a Hungarian Jew (who converted to Protestantism before his son was born).

“You could fill a page with the evidence,” says Longenbach, who cites the fact that Bloom was baptized twice (once as a Catholic, once as a Protestant) and was not circumcised. . “The first time we see him, he’s cooking a pork kidney!” he adds. “But all of this information is scattered and buried and easy to ignore, so we as readers are allowed to make the same mistake as the citizen.”

Although Ulysses is now often identified with Dublin, Joyce was not an Irish nationalist.

The book has come to be closely identified not only with Dublin, but also with Ireland. For example, June 16 is known as Bloomsday, an annual commemoration and celebration of Joyce’s life and works. Named after protagonist Leopold Bloom, the day is marked in Dublin (and elsewhere) by various celebrations, such as participants retracing Bloom’s route around the city and marathon readings of the novel.

Still, Joyce’s feelings about Ireland were complicated. A shameless anarchist, “he thought it was an extremely backward and closed culture because it was wedged between the British Empire and the Catholic Church,” says Longenbach. “And he abhorred the teaching of Irish as well as Irish nationalism, which he considered racist and sexist, like all the nationalisms he knew.”

Black and white image of James Joyce circa 1917 wearing hat, glasses, bow tie, pince-nez and suit.

Portrait of Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941) circa 1917. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The novel influenced other modernist writers, including TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

“It is important to remember that Ulysses starts to be really influential long before it was published in 1922,” says Longenbach.

Take, for example, TS Eliot, a contemporary and admirer of Joyce, and one of the major writers of modernism. Strongly influenced by Ulysses and published later that same year, Eliot’s poem land of waste has more than 400 lines and is also full of references and allusions.

Yet Longenbach does not want students to get bogged down in annotations and explanations of the poem: “I taught land of waste probably a thousand times, and I only ever mentioned the shape. You must feel the multiplicity of sources, the strangeness that enters. But ultimately, every part of this poem is lyrically pure – what matters is how it sounds.

Another prominent modernist writer, Virginia Woolf, publicly praised Ulysses while criticizing the book as “pretentious” and “a dud” in his journals and letters.

Among his most famous works is Mrs Dalloway, which details a day in the life of the protagonist and several others in post-World War I England. Published in 1925, the novel is “incredibly beautiful”, says Longenbach, but also “unthinkable without Joyce’s precedent”. Both novels explore the interiority of their characters while emphasizing the importance of seeming insignificance. “Except Mrs Dalloway associates that with femininity, culturally speaking, to a degree that Ulysses not,” says Longenbach.

Does Joyce Ulysses hard to read? Yes, but don’t let that stop you.

The book is definitely worth reading in Longenbach’s estimation.

“After all these years of teaching, I still notice things that I didn’t before,” says Longenbach. And while the text rewards readers, students, and scholars, it will almost inevitably frustrate them as well.

He adds, “At some point, you’re going to want to pick up the book and throw it across the room. Its good. This is part of the reading process. That’s just it Ulysses might force you to confront this feeling more than other texts.


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Key words: Arts and Sciences, English Department, feature article, James Longenbach, literary arts, literature

Category: Highlighted